Friday, February 4, 2011

Everest: Free to Decide, by O'Dowd & Woodall

I've been waiting quite a while to read Cathy O'Dowd's and Ian Woodall's Everest: Free to Decide. I had heard about it a couple years ago when I read Nick Heil's Dark Summit, a book about the 2006 Everest season. Free to Decide is actually about the 1996 South African Everest Expedition,`and it portrays a very different climbing season than many other 1996 Everest books. The South Africans get a bad rap in many books about the 1996 Everest disaster, including Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Boukreev's The Climb. In those books, the South Africans are portrayed as uncoorperative and hostile, and though they had the opportunity to save the day, they chose to do nothing. Free to Decide isn't written as a response to such criticism (It was published concurrently.), but I think it shows clearly how quite a bit of confusion on the mountain led to wrong impressions.

The book is set up with a mixture of perspectives. There are parts narrated by O'Dowd, some by Woodall, and also a third-person perspective that comes off sometimes as a decent mountaineering book, and occasionally as a cheap thriller. Also included are copious transcripts of radio conversations, though it's unclear if most of them are reconstructions or actual quotations. Overall, I found the prose tedious, yet dramatic. It perhaps shows a more truthful perspective of expedition life (bickering included) than the bestsellers, but a certain amount of restraint perhaps moves the plot along.

Free to Decide is the first Everest book I've read that covers the expedition from base camp forward. I think perhaps the authors are intentionally leaving out some unpleasant details from earlier in the trip, but I'm forced to speculate at the moment. The team members follow a similar schedule to many of the other expeditions on the mountain, and end up on the South Col on the same day as Rob Hall's and Scott Fischer's commercial operations. They arrive late, and chose to wait a day before heading to the summit. As a result, they get front row seats to Everest's most famous tragedy. Somehow, they end up being the only people high on the mountain besides Rob Hall who can maintain radio contact with base camp. Woodall makes two trips out of their tents during the storm to check on other expeditions and to try to organize a rescue and comes back with frostbite on his toes. The winds are enormous and the whiteout conditions and the cold prevent them from heading up the mountain to help. After the storm, the South Africans maintain communications with base camp, and render what assistance they can. They offer to go up the mountain to rescue people, but the Sherpas say that the South Africans will slow them down rather than help. After a frustrating day of being able to do little to help, they head back down the mountain. They later return to climb to the summit, putting two South Africans, three Sherpas, and a British teammate on the summit. Bruce Herrod, the British guy, does not return to the South Col, and after 24 hours is presumed dead. He was later found tangled in the ropes on the Hillary Step. It bothers me that Free to Decide states that he was sitting below the step, clipped into the rope, while Boukreev, the leader of the Indonesian expedition that was first up the mountain the next year, states in Above the Clouds, that he found Herrod hanging upside down part of the way up. It seems to me that the book contains a mix of fact and fiction, and it seems that the authors carefully control the information in the book.

I'm not going to provide more analysis of fact versus fiction just yet, because I know there is more information in Ken Vernon's Ascent and Dissent. Free to Decide makes no mention of Vernon, or anyone else who was dismissed or resigned from the original team on the trek into base camp. I think it's fair to see a different perspective and some critical analysis before I come to any conclusions, and I'll be reading Vernon's work soon. I don't think the South Africans were quite the villians others have made them. It seems more likely to me that they were too inexperienced to know what to do. For further reading on the authors' later adventures, see O'Dowd's Just for the Love of It, and Woodall's The Tao of Everest.

17 comments:

  1. I'm really not sure what to believe after reading Vernon's book. Most other books seem to villainize Woodall and the South African team. Perhaps I should trust the majority opinion...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just finished reading the last page of Ascent and Dissent...it tells a totally different story, has diaries from different team members to verify its story and its starts from how the idea came about, not from base camp...it paints a totaly different picture of Ian,

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I found it hard to decide if Ascent and Dissent was a tell-all or a twist of the truth for a bit of revenge. The 1996 South African crew comes off poorly in almost all the available literature (including Free to Decide), but I sincerely hope it wasn't quite as bad as Vernon portrays things.

      Delete
  3. Personally I think people were just looking for some one to blame , human nature ? IMHO no one owes any one in the death zone a damn thing , especially fools who take to many risk like trying to climb without oxygen , or trying to summit to late in the day . Any one who knows any thing about that mountain knows that it's not the mountain or the south Africans that kills . It's hubris plain and simple .

    ReplyDelete
  4. I´ve red hours and hours of all kind of available literature, looked hours and hours of footage and Videos and finally visited a speech of Cathy O´Dowd, Neal Beadleman and Jon Krakauer. So maybe there is just a bit of understanding from my side.....
    Being on a Mountain like Everest - nobody who has not been there, knows what it is all about - BUT selfish and arrogant behaviour has nothing to do with "thin air"!! Ian Woodall was(and probably is) - in all what he did - a real vicious guy - from A to Z. Cathy is under his spell and is good in giving a false colour of what happened. Sorry for being unpolite - but there are enough evidences, that these 2 people do not deserve, to take them serious!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Very good comment - I do not understand, how anybody is believing what this idiot is telling - and Cathy is a real ugly character......blaming people, which are not in the same room - not telling the truth....
    How is it possible, that the whole world is blaming them - and just these 2 are right?

    ReplyDelete
  6. This couple is a human "worst case scenario" - nothing else to add....

    ReplyDelete
  7. I met Cathy O'Dowd and was around her for several days in Europe while she was puffing her book and Everest stories and charging premium prices for corporate talks -- to audiences who had no way of knowing mountaineering fact from fiction. Self-promoter extraordinaire. Good luck to her.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Free to decide - sorry but it is proven, that Woodall/O´Dowd are absolutely not telling the truth in their book. They eliminate facts and show "their" Version of what happened. So please don´t believe what they try to tell us - the majority of things are a tissue of lies. Too many people experienced this - so why should their Story include more truth???

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agree it has been proven that Woodall is a fraud and who can imagine what O'Dowd's motives are, the fact she married the guy just proves she lives in a fantasy world....neither have one bit of credibility and it amazes me anyone fell for such an elaborate hoax...or how anyone could even regard anything either of them say as even holding one bit of truth...

      Delete
  9. Ian has made money in the expense of a lot of people - there is really nothing, he can be proud of - his life´s work is, to be a disgusting character - not more and not less. Tragedy is, that Cathy is on the same Level of asinity but still belivieng, that she is an "inspirationial" Speaker......my god - how stupid people can be.....

    ReplyDelete
  10. Ian Woodall and Cathy O'Dowd are DEPLORABLE human beings. Yuck! They should be SO ashamed of their behavior in 1995, not only towards the Hall and Fisher teams, but towards their OWN team members. Read some credible books on the subject.....Into Thin Air, Everest 96', Dark Summit....funny how EVERYONE'S version agrees in the basics EXCEPT for these two idiots.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hi Kristi,

    yes - if half of the Team disappears cause of.... what an unbelievable Story. I´ve red all the available Literature of course - and I am still astonished, that someone has booked O´Dowd for a speech.....
    Greets

    ReplyDelete
  12. i have read SO much about the 96 everest disater that it is ABSOLUTELY crystal clear that woodall 1. should not have been leading a team to everest 2. made some terrible decisions (partly due to his inexperience ... partly due to his arrogance) that probably resulted in the deaths of a number of other climbers ...

    of course he's tried to paint a more positive picture of his role in the 96 dosaster ... but he is generally dispised and shunned by the climbing community ...

    accordingly ... he has tried to make amends for his sins ... such as his attempts to recover/bury the bodies of his friends who died on the mountain... but: no doubt he will be remembered as a villian ... and quite rightly so ...

    ReplyDelete
  13. I was just watching a documentary called "The Dark Side of Everest" on YouTube (it's an excellent documentary, btw) and O'Dowd is one of the talking-heads featured, as are Beck Weathers and Matt Dickinson (whose contempt for O'Dowd and Woodall is obvious). It's an excellent documentary, I highly recommend it.

    Anyway. Funnily enough, at no point in said documentary does O'Dowd make any mention of Woodall getting frostbite in his efforts to help; in fact, she very clearly states that for either of them to even attempt such a thing would have been dangerous and foolhardy, so they stayed huddled in their tents.

    She very clearly states that she and Woodall could not possibly have gone up the mountain to rescue people, so they didn't even try. She does mention that their Sherpas could possibly have done it, but that she/Woodall "couldn't exactly order them to," which kind of implies that they didn't even really ask.

    She does mention the refusal to loan the radio, and uses the same "Base Çamp asked us to keep our radios so we could keep them informed on the rescue attempts," excuse. I find this ridiculous. First, they weren't involved in the rescue attempts, so what could they have been informing BC of? And second--and more importantly, IMO--the only reason they would need their radio(s?) to keep BC informed would be if the other groups were not able to contact BC to update them; if their radios had died, in other words. In which case, they could have given the radios to the other groups, and those other groups could then have kept BC informed. So they "needed to keep BC informed" because the other groups couldn't due to dead radios, and they used that as an excuse not to give those groups the radios. Ridiculous.

    (Interestingly enough, a Google search of Cathy O'Dowd brings up an old article from the NYT from May 1996, which mentions the SA group "helped out and kept the radio link to the world open. They were applauded as heroes." Hmm...so they kept the radio link to the world open and were hailed as heroes, rather than handing over the radios and letting other people actually BE heroes.)

    Her justification in the documentary of herself and Woodall's abandonment of Bruce Herrod is just...amazing. She basically says that Woodall couldn't have gotten into a physical fight with Woodall to make him descend with them, but never says that either of them actually even thought to recommend that Herrod do so, or said anything to him about it at all. She seems to really not believe they have any responsibility in Herrod's death, or that it was even a problem that they left him to climb by himself, alone on the mountain. Others in the documentary make no attempt to hide their disgust at this, and Herrod's widow doesn't appear to bear warm and fuzzy feelings toward the duo, either. Shameful.


    Now I need to see if I can find a copy of Ascent and Dissent!

    ReplyDelete
  14. If you, like a child, holds onto a radio in times of Life and Death, why would you worry about anything else. Simple selfishness probably is a symptom of great selfishness

    ReplyDelete